Rules of Golf explained: This bunker is full of water – can I have a free drop?


Mother Nature has wreaked havoc with the sand and it’s looking like a pond. What to do? Our Rules of Golf expert explains how to proceed

Is Spring really nearly over? We’d probably have been more comfortable on Noah’s Ark than a golf course over the last couple of months but those frequent – and heavy – downpours did elicit this interesting email from Pamela Moffat…

“During play the rain was so severe the bunker I landed in was full of water and there was nowhere inside the bunker to play my ball. I took relief outside of the bunker. Should I have incurred a penalty?”

Good question and one of those instances in the Rules of Golf where you might be expecting one answer only to find there is another. So let’s get stuck in.

Rules of Golf explained. Our expert says…

Temporary water – the sort that has filled Pamela’s bunker – is classed as an abnormal course condition.

Under Rule 16.1c, Relief for Ball in Bunker, a player can take either free or penalty relief depending on the circumstances.

Free relief comes with a couple of catches – namely that both the nearest point of complete relief and the relief area have to be in the bunker.

If no such nearest point of complete relief exists, a player then has the option to use the “point of maximum available relief”, still in the bunker, as the reference point.

The definition for the point of maximum available relief says it is the estimated point where the ball would lie that is, in this case:

  • Nearest to the ball’s original spot, but not nearer the hole than that spot;
  • In the bunker;
  • Where the temporary water least interferes with the stroke a player would have made from the original spot if that water didn’t exist

The definition expresses how this would work with temporary water, saying it could be where a ball is in shallower water than where a player would stand, affecting the stance more than lie or swing, or where it was in deeper water than where a player would stand – affecting in this case the lie and swing more than the stance.

But, in Pamela’s question, the bunker was totally flooded so did she have another option in the Rules – aside from trying to play it out of a river?

Yes, she could take back-on-the-line relief, playing from outside the bunker, for one penalty stroke.

Here, the relief area is based on a line going straight back from the hole through the spot of the ball.

That seems unfair, right? Why should you have to endure a penalty stroke because of the vagaries of Mother Nature? Wasn’t the bunker unfit for play?

Well, if your committee is on the ball you shouldn’t have to worry. Clubs can bring in a Local Rule that caters for this exact scenario.

Have a peek on the R&A’s website to find Model Local Rule F-16. It states that when a bunker is flooded, free relief under Rule 16.1c “may not be sufficient to allow for fair play”.

It allows committees to treat the bunker as Ground Under Repair and then give free relief from outside it.

However, if you are on a committee, don’t be tempted to bring in blanket relief for all the bunkers on the course [let’s gloss over the current Covid provisions]. It needs to be done on a case-by-case basis.

Have a question for our Rules of Golf expert?

Despite the simplification of the Rules of Golf at the beginning of 2019, there are still some that leave us scratching our heads. And as I’ve passed the R&A’s level 2 rules exam with distinction, I am more than happy to help.

If you’ve sent me an email and are yet to hear back from me, I will try to answer your query. My mailbag has been very busy in recent weeks!

Click here for the full Rules of Golf explained archive and details of how to submit a question to our expert.

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